Diet and fitness apps…are they any good?

There are hundreds of health, diet and activity apps on offer, but are they any good? Could a health or nutrition app be the next best thing to a personal trainer or a one-to-one with a nutritionist/dietitian? Or are we better off without them?

We put several apps to the test to find out if they really do what they say on the tin.

Living in a "mobile phone generation" means that, for most of us, the way we carry out our day to day activities has changed. This includes the way we manage our own health. The ease and simplicity of mobile phones means we are able to check up on symptoms whilst out shopping or 'ask-a-doctor' questions as we have our morning coffee. Additionally with so many health bloggers online, we can find answers to our most personal questions within seconds, and without having to even leave the house.

Research from Pew Research Centre suggests that between 9 and 15% of adults with a mobile phone have a health related app on it. But are these apps any good and should the public be relying so heavily on the information that they are offering?

Research from the American Heart Association suggests that "overweight and obese adults using an electronic device that provided daily messages did better at staying on diet and exercise programs".  Many users feel that the biggest benefit of nutrition apps is the regular reminders which help you stay on track and reach your goals. Motivation is hard to keep constant and often a big factor causing people to fail in their weight loss attempts is diminishing levels of motivation.

Others however feel that these apps are limited in accuracy and rely too much on people counting calories. "You're better off buying a scale to weigh yourself and judging whether to eat more or less by looking at whether you're gaining or losing weight." M. Nestle

At Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, we've reviewed some of the most popular apps to find out more:

Calorie counting

My Fitness Pal – probably one of the most well-known diet apps – allows you to track your food, exercise and your weight by entering details of the food you're eating. You can use a barcode scanner or enter food manually. A complaint with this app is that it seems to be easier to use pre-prepared food and slightly discourages cooking from scratch as it's harder entering all the details in a single recipe. However the app does remember foods you eat regularly and so allows you to add them with ease.

As with any programme that measures calories in and calories out there will be inaccuracies but overall this seems to be a popular app and way of monitoring what you're eating and calories burned during exercise.

Making Healthy swaps

Food Switch UK - helps with shopping and encouraging people to make healthier choices with their foods. It allows you to scan the barcodes and easily helps you see if the food is high in salt, sugar and fat. It holds a large number of products in its database and importantly comes up with 'healthier' alternatives to the foods you're scanning. For example scanning Tunnocks Teacakes brings up a list of 'healthier options' including Asda's own Jaffa cakes.

The app isn't perfect, but it's certainly a good start for consumers wanting to make healthier choices on packaged foods.

Motivational

My Diet Coach - gives a personalised approach to boosting motivation during dieting with the ability to set individualised goals that suit a clients needs. This seems to be an app specifically for women and includes lots of useful tips and snippets of advice to help with motivation and keeping people on track. However, a few of the 'tips' were slightly dubious and not ones we would be promoting as registered professionals such as: "think how good you will feel when you're skinny" - but these were in the minority. The app aims to keep dieters on track of their weight loss goals with reminders which you can set to pop up at anytime of the day.

Fun Apps

Meal Snap - A popular method of calculating food intakes has recently been the use of photos of your meals which then get calculated for nutrients and calories. This is generally done manually, by a computer and therefore is likely to be fairly inaccurate. However, with this app the photos are sent to actual people who are deemed fit to accurately calculate the calorie content of a meal. The results are still variable and can alter dependent on the angle of the photo.

Noom Coach - Similar to My Fitness Pal as it calculates calories from foods entered and allows you to scan barcodes. Again seems to have a slight partiality towards pre-packaged foods as this is the easiest way to enter. Also calculates your steps but apparently not very accurately. A lot of promoting people to upgrade to a paid for service.

My Mate Meal - Helps to log weight, calories and exercise. Not as user friendly as My Fitness Pal and also seems to increase calorie allowance when exercising, which isn't the right message for most people trying to lose weight.